Go with the Flo

Dis­cov­er­ing the se­crets of Malacca with Malaysia’s culi­nary queen

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - MICHELLE ROWE

WALK­ING around Malacca with Florence Tan is like vis­it­ing the Coun­try Women’s As­so­ci­a­tion with Mar­garet Ful­ton. Ev­ery­where we go, peo­ple stop and stare, the brave hur­ry­ing over to em­brace the im­pec­ca­bly turned­out sex­a­ge­nar­ian, oth­ers call­ing out a shy ‘‘Hello, Florence’’ as they wave and gig­gle from a dis­tance.

There is noth­ing of the diva about the per­pet­u­ally smil­ing Tan. For years she has been one of Malaysia’s high­est-pro­file chefs and more re­cently an un­of­fi­cial weapon in this South­east Asian na­tion’s ef­forts to draw the world’s at­ten­tion to its cui­sine, which has lagged in pop­u­lar­ity be­hind the food of, say, Thai­land or Viet­nam.

Tan, who grew up in the his­toric port city on the Strait of Malacca but now lives in Kuala Lumpur, a two-hour drive north, is one of Malacca’s great­est cheer­lead­ers, hav­ing pro­gressed from home econ­o­mist and teacher here to five- star ho­tel chef, cook­book au­thor and tele­vi­sion iden­tity.

Her well-re­ceived book, Recipes from the Ny­onya Kitchen (also re­leased as Se­crets of the Ny­onya Kitchen), show­cases the cui­sine of the Baba Ny­onya, or Per­anakan, com­mu­nity — Straits Chi­nese de­scended from early Chi­nese set­tlers who vis­ited Malacca, then the cen­tre of spice trade in the re­gion, and mar­ried Malays. The re­sult­ing cui­sine is a heady fu­sion of Chi­nese and Malay tech­niques and spices, and Tan — her­self a Straits Chi­nese, born into a fam­ily of ex­cel­lent cooks — is my key to dis­cov­er­ing the best in the city.

Diminu­tive Malacca — known as Me­laka in Malay — is an easy city to ne­go­ti­ate. Her­itage listed by UNESCO in 2008, the city (with an area of 1656sq km and a pop­u­la­tion of 788,700) is di­vided into old and new towns, with the Malacca River flow­ing through its heart. The his­toric cen­tre, Banda Hilir, is lo­cated near the coast­line at the mouth of the river and in­cludes some of the city’s most im­por­tant sites, such as the ru­ins of the Por­tuguese fortress A’famosa and St Paul’s Church on the east­ern side of the river, and the old Chi­na­town area on the western bank. It is also where most of the best eat­ing ex­pe­ri­ences can be had.

The pic­turesque city tells the tale of its Por­tuguese, Dutch and Bri­tish conquerors, with a rich ta­pes­try of some of Asia’s old­est Euro­pean ar­chi­tec­ture along­side tra­di­tional Malay houses and shops. A cruise up the Malacca River pro­vides a bird’s-eye view.

We set off early in Tan’s comfy sedan. At the wheel is Ismail, once her aunt’s chauf­feur but ‘‘adopted’’ by Tan af­ter the el­derly woman passed away.

‘‘Do you know, he has 10 chil­dren to sup­port,’’ Tan whis­pers as we hur­tle past taxis and tr­ishaws decked out with im­pos­si­bly bright blooms, blar­ing boom boxes an­nounc­ing their pres­ence.

Fam­ily is im­por­tant to Tan. At Malacca Cen­tral Mar­ket — a scrupu­lously clean, in­door repos­i­tory of pro­duce, from turnips and tripe to dried tamarind skins — we are joined by her cousin Amy Koh, an­other fa­mil­iar face due to the high-spir­ited duo’s ap­pear­ance on Rick Stein’s tele­vi­sion se­ries Far East­ern Odyssey, in which they whipped up a spicy chicken dish at Koh’s pop­u­lar res­tau­rant in the cen­tre of town. The pair has also ap­peared on the Aus­tralian se­ries Poh’s Kitchen.

A den­tal nurse for 33 years be­fore she be­came a chef four years ago, Koh has reg­u­larly ac­com­pa­nied Tan on over­seas mis­sions to pro­mote Malaysian cui­sine. ‘‘We grew up to­gether and we share ev­ery­thing,’’ says Tan. ‘‘Ex­cept hus­bands!’’ she adds with a hoot. But Koh is in no mood to joke. The price of fresh chill­ies has tre­bled in j ust a few days. ‘ ‘ It’s never gone up this much be­fore,’’ she says with a scowl, fling­ing a hand­ful of the po­tent mis­siles back on to the pile.

If any­body should un­der­stand the va­garies of Malacca’s pro­duce pric­ing, it’s Koh — she shops at this wet mar­ket, about 3km from the cen­tre of town and in the same build­ing as the city’s ex­press bus and taxi ter­mi­nal, for her res­tau­rant al­most ev­ery day.

The mar­ket is only our first stop and Tan has al­ready co­erced me into try­ing a ba­nana frit­ter and a curry puff (cost­ing the equiv­a­lent of a few cents each) from a portly woman at the mar­ket’s en­trance. Now Koh leads us up­stairs to the food court, which largely serves mar­ket ven­dors and lo­cals, and I feel I’ve been let in on a se­cret. ‘‘Eat­ing is a na­tional pas­time,’’ Tan tells me, guid­ing me to a ta­ble where a se­lec­tion of dishes is laid out, in­clud­ing nasi ayam (Malay chicken rice), curry mee (a spicy curry soup with egg noo­dles, beef, egg, fish­cakes and veg­eta­bles) and soto ayam ( a sooth­ing chicken broth), each cost­ing as lit­tle as 4 ring­git ($1.20).

There’s also a steam­ing mug of teh tarik, the sweet pulled tea pre- pared with con­densed milk — the mak­ing of which, Tan tells me, is also some­thing of a na­tional sport, with an an­nual com­pe­ti­tion to find the best tea puller.

‘ ‘ I al­ways say to peo­ple that Malaysian food has so much va­ri­ety, you can go around the world seven times,’’ Tan says of the eth­nic in­flu­ences, in­clud­ing Chi­nese, Por­tuguese and Chitti ( South In­dian), that have in­formed the city’s cui­sine.

‘ ‘ It was 600 years ago that traders first came [ here]. The Dutch didn’t leave much ex­cept the build­ings, but the Bri­tish, the Por­tuguese, the Chi­nese, they left us a lot of in­flu­ences on our food and we have as­sim­i­lated all the best parts from each cul­ture.’’

Jonker Street in city- cen­tre Chi­na­town is the per­fect place to ex­pe­ri­ence this di­ver­sity. Its stall­hold­ers on week­ends spruik gad­gets, snacks and sou­venirs, along­side restau­rants, bars and shop­houses sell­ing ev­ery­thing from baked pineap­ple tarts to bat­ter­ies. Jonker Street (Jalan Hang Je­bat) is also renowned for its an­tiques stores, full of ce­ram­ics, art­works, wooden games and or­na­ments. For the fa­mous Malac­can sweet baba cen­dol — a glo­ri­ous con­fec­tion of shaved ice, co­conut milk, sweet red beans and jelly strips made from green pea flour topped with palm sugar — Tan guides me to Jenny Wong’s Jonker 88 mu­seum cafe, about half­way down the street.

There’s a queue at the front of the shop, which also sells mango and durian ver­sions of the icy treat, plus a se­lec­tion of savoury dishes. But we don’t need a ta­ble; we or­der a cen­dol and an equally mor­eish sago dessert, and wolf them down in the mid­day heat.

At the end of Jonker Street is Chung Wah, which serves the city’s best chicken rice balls, judg­ing from the queue that ex­tends from its en­trance down the street and across a small bridge over the Malacca River.

Tan tells me this is a cu­ri­ously Malac­can way of eat­ing tra­di­tional Hainan chicken rice — the chicken-flavoured rice is shaped into ping- pong- sized balls and eaten with steamed or roasted chicken, dipped into the usual lo­cal condi­ments.

This non­de­script shop with a flak­ing, cream-coloured ex­te­rior is do­ing a roar­ing trade and we could be here for hours, but a de­ter­mined Tan goes to the front of the queue (gar­ner­ing yet more good-

na­tured slaps on the back), where she charms the owner into let­ting us in for a chat with the cook.

Three din­ers quickly make room at their ta­ble, and we try a cou­ple of chicken balls. It’s a novel idea, but I am a Hainan chicken rice tragic and pre­fer the tra­di­tional style. Our new friends, how­ever, are tuck­ing in with gusto.

Other stops on our whirl­wind tour in­clude the ex­cel­lent but unas­sum­ing Xiang Ji Sa­tay House, a short walk from Jonker Street, and the Por­tuguese Set­tle­ment south­east of the city where a vi­brant strip of coastal restau­rants spe­cialises in seafood.

But Tan saves the best un­til last. At Restoran Ny­onya Makko in the old town we meet owner Mau­reen Guan, whose mother, Bibik Ny­ong, now 91, launched the busi­ness in the 1960s, serv­ing lit­tle more than nasi lemak (co­conut- flavoured rice and condi­ments), home­made ren­dang chicken and sam­bal tu­mis (spicy Malaysian chilli paste) from a small stall. The busi­ness has been re­lo­cated and much ex­panded, but it still thrives on Bibik Ny­ong’s orig­i­nal recipes along­side other Ny­onya spe­cial­ties. This bustling res­tau­rant, its large shared ta­bles full when we visit, has at­tracted a new fol­low­ing cour­tesy of so­cial me­dia.

Though we left Tan’s cousin at the mar­ket ear­lier in the day, it’s not the last we’ll see of her. Koh has in­vited us for din­ner and it’s at her Amy Her­itage Ny­onya Cui­sine in Banda Hilir that I have some of the best food of my visit.

Like Tan, Koh has a keen sense of tra­di­tion and aims to carry on the cook­ing skills and recipes she has learned from her Baba (male) and Ny­onya (fe­male) fore­bears. From her kitchen at this mod­est din­ing spot, which fea­tures on its walls pho­tos of Koh and Tan’s par- ents in or­nate wed­ding re­galia along­side framed awards, flows a se­ries of Ny­onya dishes.

There’s a fab­u­lous fish maw soup (usu­ally served on spe­cial oc­ca­sions in the Per­anakan com­mu­nity); prawns sim­mered in thick tamarind sauce; a won­der­fully spicy omelette with cin­caluk (fer­mented shrimp paste); and kuih pie tee, tiny top-hat-shaped pas­tries filled with a spicy turnip, prawn and bean­curd mix.

There’s also ayam buah keluak, a deep and flavour­some chicken stew made with black nuts that, Tan tells me, can be poi­sonous if not cooked long enough.

For­tu­nately, Ny­onya food in­volves end­less fry­ing and steep­ing, the elab­o­rate pastes at the heart of each dish a fragrant melange of flavours, so there is no fear of up­set tum­mies tonight.

As we eat, I no­tice a few sly glances from a ta­ble of eight nearby. Soon, all heads have turned our way. Koh is not back­ward in com­ing for­ward.

‘‘It’s my cousin Florence!’’ she calls out to the in­quis­i­tive bunch. In a flash Tan is at their ta­ble, each diner in­sist­ing on hav­ing their photo taken with the lo­cal celebrity in their midst.

As we drive back to my ho­tel, Tan, who is putting the fin­ish­ing touches to her sec­ond book, tells me, ‘ ‘ My mis­sion is to write Ny­onya cook­books so that when we are all long gone we can still have the food of our fore­fa­thers.’’

For those of us j ust get­ting ac­quainted with the cui­sine of Malacca — the heart­land of Ny­onya food — that’s some­thing to be thank­ful for. Michelle Rowe was a guest of Tourism Malaysia, Ai­ra­sia and The Ma­jes­tic Malacca.

PIC­TURES BE­LOW: MICHELLE ROWE

Clock­wise from main picture, the evening rush hour at stall-lined Jonker Street; a dumpling stall on the street; chicken rice balls at Chung Wah; Amy Koh at Amy Her­itage Ny­onya Cui­sine

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